San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods featured a character not seen in previous stagings – a young boy of about 10 who took the stage as the audience was entering the house, played ball, practiced sliding into imaginary bases and fenced with imaginary sabers. Throughout the evening, he spoke not a line, but from the beginning it was clear that the Mysterious Man was not merely narrating the events for the audience, he was telling these stories to the boy.
It could be argued that James Lapine's book is such a sterling example of story-telling clarity that an additional character would be either superfluous or even intrusive. However, such was not the case in San Francisco.
Director Susi Damilano cast hometown actor Ian DeVaynes as the boy. He brought a charm and delightfully natural presence to the stage. Damilano used him not just as one of the "children" who "will listen," but also as a character who interacts with the performance. He operated the stick-puppet birds that pecked out the lentils Cinderella's stepmother threw into the fireplace. He twirled set pieces into place and lowered Milky-White to the floor upon her demise. In the middle of Act II he hovered in a tree to observe the Baker and the Mysterious Man's duet, "No More." By then, it was quite clear that the boy was the Baker's son, 10 years after the time of Act II, and he had been listening to his grandfather relate the story of how he came to be.
Damilano was clearly just as careful in casting the other roles. There was a consistency of strengths that only comes with attention to specific factors. For this musical, with some of Sondheim's most clever lyrics, nearly all parts were filled by performers whose strength was in enunciation and portraying emotion rather than in pitch and tone. While there were a few missed notes in the opening night performance, there were practically no missed syllables.
Among the leads, Keith Pinto, El Beh and Tim Homsley excelled in the roles of the Baker, the Baker's Wife and Jack. Beh combined a comic flare with a genuine sense of passion both for parenthood and for full partnership with her husband. Her "Maybe They're Magic" built deftly to the punch line of "it justifies the beans," and her "Moments in the Woods" was marvelously revelatory. Homsley added a nice touch of juvenile immaturity to his early scenes as Jack so that his growth through experience was clear. His discovery of "Giants In The Sky" was one of many highlights.
Following the approach of Lapine's revisions to the script for the 2002 Broadway revival, this production used two wolves for "Hello Little Girl," played by actors Jeffrey Brian Adams and Ryan McCrary, who doubled as Cinderella's and Rapunzel's Princes, respectively. They were fine in that number, and were spectacular in both Act I's "Agony" and its reprise. Also included was the number "Our Little World" written for the 1990 London production as a duet for the Witch and Rapunzel. Safiya Fredericks was effective as the Witch in that number, but hit her peak with "Last Midnight."
Music director Dave Dobrusky used a reduced version of Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations for his seven-member orchestra which was placed on stage behind the trees. With a single brass player he managed to give the piece the sharp sound Sondheim fans have come to expect.
Joining Damilano were sound designer Theodore J. H. Hulsker and scenic designer Nina Ball. Hulsker shook the floor, walls and seats of the audience with each step of the Giant's approach. Ball provided an assortment of tree trunks and stumps in front of the band. She framed the scene with two full proscenium-spanning patterns of vines and leaves, reminiscent of the border of a fairy-tale book. But the woods themselves were strangely devoid of leaves, and there was hardly a touch of green anywhere.
Director Damilano found one more way to utilize the addition of the boy to the show. His obvious need to take a bathroom break was the cue for intermission, motivating the narrator's "To be continued…" with a humorous glint. [TSR]
A new perspective
A San Francisco boy goes Into the Woods